Attacks, killings and the food crisis in Toungoo District
SPDC troops have continued to target internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Toungoo District. Civilians continue be killed or injured by the attacks while many of the survivors flee their homes and take shelter in forest hiding sites. Some who have moved into SPDC forced relocation sites continue to secretly return to their villages to cultivate their crops, constantly risking punishment or execution by troops patrolling the areas. The SPDC's repeated disruption of regular planting cycles has created a food crisis in Toungoo, further endangering the IDPs living there. This report examines the abuses in Toungoo District from April to June 2008.
Since the end of 2005, civilians and particularly internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Toungoo District have faced the constant threat of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) attacks. While some villagers have relocated to refugee camps, many others have gone into hiding in the forested mountains and have survived by staying one step ahead of SPDC troop movements. Villagers have organised lookouts to monitor SPDC patrols and some villages have recently held meetings to decide how to best avoid SPDC troops operating in the area.
Despite designating lookouts for troop movements, civilians living in non-SPDC-controlled areas are still sometimes surprised by the SPDC. Villagers have little time to escape before the SPDC attacks and it is difficult for them to pack their food and belongings. Upon finding an IDP hiding place or abandoned village, soldiers will generally take whatever they can use and burn everything else.
On April 19th 2008, columns #1 and 2 of SPDC Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #706, operating under Military Operations Command (MOC) #4, entered Buh Kee village of Tantabin township. Villagers there avoided the approaching patrol by fleeing to a hiding site in Tantabin township, leaving behind their belongings, including rice, salt, clothes, blankets, and cooking equipment, most of which was then taken by the SPDC. SPDC soldiers had previously attacked Buh Kee village as recently as December 5th 2007, when they burnt down the homes of local residents.
In another attack in April 2008 by SPDC forces, Saw T---, an elderly man from See Kheh Der village, lost most of his property: 10 baskets (500 kg. / 1100 lb.) of rice, 10 viss (16.32 kg. / 36 lb.) of salt and 10 viss of fish paste. The cost of the items was estimated to be around 200,000 kyat (approx. US $170). After his village was destroyed, Saw T--- was forced to flee to a forest hiding site in the mountains with only his daughter to support him. The daughter is now responsible for buying their food from M--- village. She has to walk for three days to get the food and told KHRG:
Although they had begun cultivating newly planted fields in Bu---, B---, H--- and S--- villages in Tantabin township, the villagers had to flee to a hiding site on May 2008. However, once SPDC troops established a camp near the fields, the villagers were again forced to flee into the forest and their crops have since become overgrown by weeds, which will undermine the growth of the plants and thus reduce the villagers' eventual harvest and food supplies.
Starting in January 2008, civilians from 11 different villages in Tantabin township began to meet and discuss how to best evade the SPDC. The villagers settled on separating into small groups and escaping to three different forest hiding sites. When SPDC patrols began attacking villages in the area in April 2008, the civilians fled to these three pre-decided locations and have attempted to live as normally as possible. In one hiding site, the villagers have built an impromptu school for their children, so as not to allow their displacement to jeopardise their children's education.
Insecurity and the food crisis
The SPDC military assaults on Toungoo residents have seriously disrupted regular planting cycles, creating a food crisis in the region that further endangers the IDPs living there. Villagers are forced to remain in dangerous hiding places, often going without food for days at a time. It takes several days for villagers hiding in the area to travel and obtain food from M--- village, which has the nearest accessible market. It is an exhausting journey and civilians risk being killed if met by SPDC troops. On June 4th 2008, villagers from H---, T--- and B--- villages went to buy their food at M--- village. While returning home, the SPDC discovered them and began to shoot. The villagers were forced to drop that which they were carrying and flee and the soldiers took the newly purchased food that the villagers had left behind.
The current rainy season makes life even more difficult for displaced villagers in hiding. Having few building materials, the villagers are only able to construct small huts, some of which don't have roofs. There are often also not enough blankets and mosquito nets to go around, frequently leaving many displaced villagers exposed to the elements. Many have run out of food and rely on Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) forces for stores, as was the case in February 2008 when KNLA Brigade #5 Brigadier Baw Gkyaw Heh distributed rice sacks to struggling villagers living in the three designated hiding sites.
For the first half of this year, villagers have also had to go without financial support from cross-border NGOs that has become a key means for villagers to purchase food. A villager from Toungoo District reported to KHRG researchers that "In the past, CIDKP [the Committee for the Internally Displaced Karen People] and KORD [the Karen Office of Relief and Development] gave support to the villagers, but this year the village didn't receive this support. The villagers really need help for 2008." When KHRG staff contacted the staff of KORD and CIDKP, the organizations confirmed that a lack of funding had prevented them from providing relief to the IDPs between January and June of 2008. However, these organisations had planned to restart relief operations in July 2008 with new funds.
Many Toungoo IDPs have had to make difficult decisions about their futures. Some villagers who had attempted to make a living in the plain areas have been unable to find jobs and are constantly conscripted into forced labour by SPDC forces. As a consequence, many of these villagers surreptitiously return to the mountains to cultivate crops and risk being discovered by SPDC troops. If discovered, they will be conscripted into forced labour, shot on sight, or detained and executed. Such an incident occurred on May 20th 2008, when soldiers attached to LIB #370 - based out of Gkaw Thay Der village - arrested Saw Gkaw Gkoh, a 40-year-old man from Ya Thay Gkoh village who was travelling to his mountain plantation. The soldiers didn't question him but instead ordered a soldier to escort him to the military camp, where SPDC officers Tun Win and Min Zaw, ordered his execution. Another example is from May 22nd 2008, when soldiers from Military Operations Command (MOC) #21, which were patrolling the area surrounding Gkaw Thay Der village, arrested Saw Gko Gkoh, a 42-year-old man from Glay Kee village who had lived in the flatlands and was discovered while tending to his mountain field near Gkaw Thay Der. Soldiers arrested him and took him away. Local villagers believe that he was executed, although they have been unable to find his body.
The above examples are just some of the many incidents of killings which have been reported to KHRG this year. Below is a list of villagers injured or killed in Toungoo District between April and May 2008 alone:
The SPDC continues to pressure villagers by building military camps on or near villagers' cultivation areas and forcing them to abandon their farms and fields. Civilians who decide to secretly return to their crops risk being discovered and killed. In the face of encroaching SPDC Army units and the threat of living under their control - meaning a life of forced labour and other forms of extortion - many villagers in Toungoo District choose instead to flee into the forest. A food crisis has emerged from this instability and the villagers capable of evading capture or execution by the SPDC are now threatened with malnutrition and potential starvation. Furthermore, by actively destroying villagers' food stores and farm fields, the Burma Army hopes to starve villagers into leaving their hiding sites and submitting to a life under SPDC control in the plains. Nevertheless, villagers continue to weigh their options and often still choose to evade control and resist abuse, remaining close to their homelands for as long as possible.
 See, SPDC troops burn villages and step up operations against civilians in southern Toungoo District, KHRG, December 2007.
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